Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith

Despite my strong political opinions I am not usually one to politicize literature.  I don’t usually hold an author’s political views against them; or at least I don’t choose my fiction based on politics.  But I have to confess that I found my cultural and political views coloring my appreciation for a novel recently.

The novel in question is Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith. It is part of the Cannongate Myth series and is a retelling, of sorts, of the myth of Iphis.  For background, here is Wikipedia on Iphis:

According to Greek Mythology and the Roman poet Ovid, who wrote about transformations in his Metamorphoses, Iphis (or Iphys) was the daughter of Telethusa and Ligdus in Crete. Ligdus had already threatened to kill his pregnant wife’s child if it wasn’t a boy. Telethusa despairs, but is visited in the middle of the night by the Egyptian goddess Isis, attended by Anubis and Apis, who assures her that all will be well. When Telethusa gives birth to Iphis, she conceals her daughter’s sex from her husband and raises her daughter as a boy. Iphis falls in love with another girl, Ianthe. Iphis is deeply in love and prays to Juno to allow her to marry her beloved. When nothing happens, her mother Telethusa brings her to the temple of Isis and prays to the goddess to help her daughter. Isis responds by transforming Iphis into a man. The male Iphis marries Ianthe and the two live happily ever after. Their marriage is presided over by Juno, Venus, and Hymenaios, the god of marriage. Ovid, Metamorphoses, IX, 666-797

It is not an easy plot to summarize, despite the fact that the book is only 160 pages, but here is Publishers Weekly’s plot summation (yes, I am too lazy to write my own):

Fragile, rootless Anthea arrives at the Inverness, Scotland, offices of the slick, multibrand corporate behemoth Pure, where her up-and-coming sister Midge has gotten her a job. Raised on their grandfather’s strange stories of rebellion and gender switching, the sisters undergo very different transformations when confronting “Pure oblivion,” the corporation’s goal of being simultaneously ubiquitous and invisible. Drifting at work, Anthea meets kilt-clad graffiti artist Robin, who awakens destructive passions within her. Midge, meanwhile, is summoned to Pure’s London headquarters by Keith, the charismatic “boss of bosses,” and her meeting with him sets her on an unexpected course with the company.

The whole thing is a liberal dream world: lesbian lovers find happiness and a way to stop global capitalism!  The free spirited sister teachers her more conventionally successful, and uptight, sister to reject not only destructive capitalism but her closet bigotry about lesbians!  Plus, she falls in love too!

If you are the kind of person who thinks global corporations are plotting the worlds destruction through bottled water or that spray painting statistics and pithy leftist catch phrases on building is effective political activism then I am sure you will enjoy this novel.  If you think private property rights are theft and that advertising is about deceiving the masses then this is your kind of book.  If these issues seem a bit more complex to you, then the hopelessly naive liberal Utopian worldview it represents might get on your nerves a bit.

That and the fact that it is really never explores the myth it is supposed to focus on in any serious way (unless you think that musing about advertising as myth is deep).  Or maybe it is just me.

I have not read any of Ali Smith’s previous works so I don’t know how typical this is of her writing.  Despite the above rant, I can recognize that Smith has some talent.  I think this reviewer got it about right:

However, while the author certainly has a magnificent ear for language – her poetic musings are at times beautiful and evocative – in this case it’s at the expense of a clearly defined plot. In addition, Girl Meets Boy’s characters are not as fully realised as in Smith’s past offerings, and when combined with the occasional cliché, such as one sister’s desire to quit the business world when she recognises its essential emptiness, this makes for a rather flimsy, frustrating tale. Humour and Smith’s spirited prose style are both redeeming features in this latest of Canongate’s Myth series, but be prepared: you may find yourself wanting more.

A longer, or more complex, novel might have overcome its political worldview but this short novel offers nothing more than a fanciful imagining of its politics.  No matter how poetic that language that isn’t enough for me.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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